Lab Canada

Research reveals chemical PFO(A) is airborne

Peterborough, ON – Research by Trent University chemistry professor Dr David Ellis has potentially proven that perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a toxic, anthropogenic chemical, is being transported through the air, thereby making it a much greater threat to humans and the environment than previously thought.

“For decades, international researchers have debated how PFO(A) is being globally disseminated,” Dr Ellis says, noting that the chemical appears in the bloodstream of all Canadians tested in a recent study, and often at higher levels in young children, as well as in animals and fish everywhere around the world from urban centres to the high Arctic. “Our research lies contrary to popular thought; that being, airborne PFO(A) is rapidly rained out to bodies of water such as Lake Ontario where it essentially remains dormant. We are proposing that the exact opposite is in fact true; the chemical is actually moving out of water into the atmosphere where it is not effectively scavenged by rain, but instead readily transported to pristine environments. We suggest that with our findings, the global spread of PFO(A) can be explained and readily understood.”

Dr Ellis’s research, which was undertaken in the labs at Trent University, is being published in three major papers in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, a leading international, peer-reviewed journal, in April/May 2010.

PFO(A) is indefinitely persistent in the environment and has been detected in industrial waste, stain resistant carpets and clothing, carpet cleaning liquids, house dust, microwave popcorn bags, water, food and non-stick cookware. Environment Canada, Health Canada and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US have been investigating PFO(A) because it is persistent in the environment and has potentially adverse effects. It is a toxicant and carcinogen in animals. In people, it is detected in the blood of general populations in the low parts per billion range where studies have associated it with infertility, higher cholesterol, and thyroid disease. In highly exposed animals, some studies have associated PFO(A) exposure with birth defects, increased cancer rates, and changes to the immune system and liver.

Previously, the scientific community believed that PFO(A) generally stayed in the areas where the chemical was created, in urban centres, or travelled in water where it was subject to slow movement due to ocean currents. Dr Ellis’ research, however, shows that PFO(A) is actually being emitted out of the lakes and oceans and into the air, thereby having the ability to travel much faster and much more freely. The mathematical models developed as a part of this work allowed Dr Ellis to test his theories and the previously existing theories against real world observations.

“In reality, we have discovered that the action of wave breaking liberates the chemical into air, making the dissemination equivalent to something like a smoke stack,” Dr Ellis says.

Looking ahead, Dr Ellis hopes his findings will be used help legislators with the regulation of these chemicals in Canada. As a first step, he will be leading a meeting between Environment Canada, Health Canada and DuPont, the world’s second largest chemical company, in June, to discuss aspects of his scientific findings. As a well-recognized expert in the field, Dr Ellis was asked to be a potential participant on the “Biodegradation SEP Peer Consultation Panel” coordinated by International Life Science Institute (ILSI) for the EPA. The work of this panel will be to evaluate data and make recommendations to the U.S. EPA regarding biodegradation studies on certain fluorotelomer products.

Exploring off-shoots of this research, Dr Ellis will also begin researching the impacts of PFO(A) on global warming in the new state-of-the-art Atmospheric Chamber at Trent University. He is also examining how PFO(A) accumulates in the liver and the potential it therefore has to act as a drug inhibitor.

Dr Ellis has been a professor in the chemistry department at Trent University since 2004. He became the director of the Centre for Environmental Modelling and Chemistry in 2007 and currently serves as chair of the chemistry department.